This morning’s awarding of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, along with children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi of India, comes at an important moment.
Ms. Yousafzai, who at seventeen years old is the youngest recipient of the award, was shot in the head by the Taliban two years ago for campaigning in support of girls’ education in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Since then she has become a global symbol of her struggle, and she has established a fund that promotes girls’ education—and indeed education for all—across the world.
Ms. Yousafzai’s receipt of this honor epitomizes the growing international recognition that girls’ education has far-reaching implications for development. In addition, tomorrow’s International Day of the Girl will be celebrated with the lighting of the Empire State Building, further symbolizing the increase in attention paid to challenges facing girls. Research demonstrates that investment in girls’ education leads to greater prosperity, security, and stability. In countries such as Afghanistan, where female enrollment in publicly supported schools has gone from nearly zero to forty percent since 2001, girls’ education has been a critical economic development tool.
In Pakistan, girls face staggering challenges in their access to education. Despite increases in the primary school net enrollment ratio, with 63 percent of school age children attending school in 2012, there are only eight girls to every ten boys in a class. In the Punjab, Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan provinces, over 50 percent of impoverished girls have never been to school. Yet public spending on education in Pakistan is falling, from 2.6 percent of gross national product (GNP) in 1999 to only 2.4 percent in 2012.
Despite the clear benefits of girls’ education—not only for the girls themselves, but also in terms of broader development outcomes—some groups oppose girls’ access to schools. Besides Taliban restrictions on girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in this past year, the extremist group Boko Horom abducted schoolgirls in large numbers in Nigeria, and ISIS is reportedly imposing restrictions on girls’ education in Iraq.
Ms. Yousafzai’s struggle, and her recent success, sets an example for the world to bring the issue of girls’ education to the forefront of the foreign policy and development discussion. Educating and empowering girls not only invests in their future, but also in furthering the broader aims of building prosperity and stability.